Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Amazing Amanda

Judy Shackelford, who has been in the toy industry for more than 40 years, has seen a lot of dolls. But none, she says, like her latest creation, a marvel of digital technologies, including speech-recognition and memory chips, radio frequency tags and scanners, and facial robotics. She and her team have christened it Amazing Amanda.

Workers test the motor that controls the doll's facial expressions.

Radio frequency tags in Amanda's accessories - including toy food, potty and clothing - wirelessly inform the doll of what it is interacting with. For instance, if the doll asks for a spoon of peas and it is given its plastic cookie, it will gently admonish its caregiver, telling her that a cookie is not peas.

While $99 is a premium price for a doll, it is only about $10 more than the price of the popular American Girl dolls. And, Ms. Shackelford said, Amanda may prove that girls as well as boys can embrace technology in their toys.

"I think girls have more active imaginations than boys do when it comes to play," Mr. Riley noted. "If girls have a button on their doll and can feel an engine inside it, that takes away from their ability to imagine."

Ms. Shackelford has been testing limits since she joined Mattel in 1976 as manager of preschool marketing. Three years later she became the highest-ranking woman in the American toy industry when she was named a Mattel vice president, the first woman to reach that rank. Credited with reviving the Barbie line of dolls and toys in the late 1970's, she left Mattel in 1986 to establish her own company.

Can you say, "Chucky?"

One prerelease model of Amazing Amanda, once it was activated (by flipping the toy's only visible switch hidden high on its back and beneath its clothing), woke with a yawn, slowly opened its eyes and started asking questions in a cutesy, almost cartoonlike girl's voice.

What the doll is actually doing, Ms. Shackelford said, is "voice printing" the primary user's voice pattern. By asking a child to repeat "Amanda" several times, the doll quickly comes to recognize and store in its electronic memory that child's voice, and only that child's voice, as its "mommy." Other voices are greeted with Amanda's cautionary proclamation, "You don't sound like Mommy."

In all, Ms. Shackelford said, the doll is equipped for almost an hour of speech that includes various questions, programmed responses, requests, songs and games. And as Amanda speaks, the doll's soft-plastic lips move and its face, using Disney-like animatronics, help to suggest expressions.

For instance, when Amazing Amanda plays a game called funny face, she asks if you would like to see a happy face or a sad one. If you answer "funny face," the doll's eyes brighten and she looks as if she is smiling. If Amanda is asked to make a sad one, her lower lip protrudes as her lids lower. She might even ask if you would like to see her cry, responding to "yes" or "no."

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